Where chef Steve Gonzalez eats pho, tortas and doughnuts in Kensington Market and Chinatown
Chef Steve Gonzalez is feeling very chill. After returning from a vacation in Costa Rica with his fiancée and five-month-old baby, Victoria Rose, he got some much-deserved rest and recuperation. “I wanted everything to be super-relaxing,” Gonzalez says. “I just had surgery on my achilles, so I need to keep off my feet as much as possible.” So instead of running around Baro, the only walking he did was on the beach. But Gonzalez didn’t take a break from the kitchen entirely: he cooked a whole lot with his fiancée’s family, who live in Costa Rica. “Now I want to make one of those classic dishes from there happen at the restaurant. I plan on debuting my take on a chifrijo—a dish of crispy pork, rice and beans—at Baro.”
Now back at home in Toronto with winter setting in, Gonzalez says he’s all about comfort food. “Before I opened Valdez in 2013, I was living in Kensington Market and trying to figure out how to go about starting a restaurant. I was young and hungry—to eat and to learn. So the neighbourhood has a lot of memories for me,” says Gonzalez. He points to a colourful building complex, where he once lived. “This is where is where it all started. I was doing everything: pop-ups, catering, underground markets. I made 400 tamales in that tiny apartment one time for a catering gig.” Although he now lives in the King and Dufferin area, Gonzalez often returns to his old stomping grounds for what he calls “chill me-time,” wandering the narrow streets and snacking at his favourite spots.
350 Spadina Ave., 416-593-4274, phohung.ca
“I was actually introduced to this spot way back in 1998, during my Avalon days. During that time, under Chris McDonald’s guidance, is when I first learned about real cooking. Pho Hung was one of our Sunday spots, where we would have our staff family meal. But I still come here at least twice a month, no matter the season. I love it for its efficiency and consistency—I’m in and out in 20 minutes. Then, when my belly is full, I can take care of my business and do my market run.” (Note: Pho Hung is cash only.)
Go-to item 1: Pho hung dac biet
Tasting notes: Pho Hung has been making this classic dish since the restaurant opened in 1986. Owner Tony Nguygen explains that there’s always beef broth on the back burner, and that it’s simmered for at least 12 hours. The rice noodle soup comes with a medley of goodies: rare and well-done beef slices, braised tripe and tendon. “I like to eat everything and I’m not squeamish with offal cuts,” says Gonzalez. “I’ve been in the restaurant game for over 30 years now, so I enjoy trying it all. I used to love to make this pho extra-spicy, but now not so much—spice actually fucks me up.” He knows just the right amount of each sauce to add, and he does so with a flick of the wrist: for the hoisin, it’s four spins around the bowl; the sriracha gets one-and-a-half spins; and for the soy sauce, it’s a couple of two-second pours. Gonzalez finishes it all off with some fresh Thai basil and lime juice—but no bean sprouts. “They weird me out a little,” he says.
Go-to item 2: Bun nem nuong, thịt nuong, cha gio.
Tasting notes: This dish brings grilled pork, spiced pork sausage and fried pork spring rolls on a bed of vermicelli and vegetables. “I love this because it’s so refreshing. It’s like pho without the broth. And you have to have it with the vinegar chili sauce—it’s perfect on the noodles and for dipping the spring roll.”
Go-to item 3: Sinh to xoai.
Tasting notes: “The perfect combo for me is my three favourite dishes with this mango milkshake. It’s sweet and bright, and it reminds me of being back in Colombia and enjoying super-fresh mango.”
Torteria San Cosme
181 Baldwin St., 416-599-2855, sancosme.ca
“When I used to live in Kensington, I’d grab a sandwich here before taking advantage of a free concert nearby. And I love to dance—I can dance like a motherfucker. When I was young, I used to be in a Colombian folk dance group. So I love the Latin community vibes in the market. This place pays homage to Mexican street food with the graffiti art, the metal lattice weave to represent food carts, and the reggaetón blasting overhead.”
Go-to item 1: The Milanesa torta with queso Chihuahua.
Tasting notes: “A torta is basically a grilled sandwich cooked so you get this toasted crispy exterior and fluffy interior stuffed with your favourite Mexican fillings. I always get the Milanesa, which is a thin chicken cutlet, breaded and deep-fried. It’s sandwiched with refried beans, tomato slices, sautéed onions, avocado and chipotle mayo. And I get the add-on of Chihuahua cheese, which adds some creaminess. I’m such a fucking messy eater, though, and this sandwich is already messy. What you need to do is to squish it down and compact it just a bit. Then, never put it down. As soon as you do, that’s when the mess happens and you need a pile of napkins. I can always eat sandwiches. Growing up, we always had bread in the house. And I remember going with my dad to work at Dempsters and running around the facility, surrounded by that bread smell. Maybe that’s why I love sandwiches so much, they remind me of my childhood.”
Go-to item 2: Tamarind water.
Tasting notes: “Tamarind slices are soaked in water and a bit of cane sugar is added. I love the sweet-sour-tangy action going on in my mouth. It’s also great with the sandwich because it’s so refreshing.”
Go-to item 3: Esquites.
Tasting notes: For this dish, corn niblets are mixed with cream, topped with crumbled cotija cheese and finished with chile piquin and lime juice. “It’s like a corn street snack and it sticks to your ribs. I love how it warms me up, too. You get great flavours in here: the tang from the cheese, acid from the lime and heat from the chili.”
200 Baldwin St., no phone, facebook.com/416LatinTaste
“Sonja, the previous owner, knew that I was obsessed with the pasqualinas, so when I lived here, she used to phone me right when they came out of the oven.” Today, Lorena Ramos owns Latin Taste and Gonzalez continues to visit for her Peruvian specialities. “What you see here is the tip of the iceberg. On weekends, that’s when she offers the hardcore stuff, like tamales and ceviche.” (Note: Latin Taste is cash only.)
Go-to item 1: Pasqualinas.
Tasting notes: “The dough is made from lard, flour and water, much like it is for empanadas. It’s just that these are baked on a large sheet pan. The pastry is filled with sautéed spinach, spices, some chilies and a hard-boiled egg. I can eat this hot or cold, but eating it cold grosses out Lorena. I usually pick up a few so I can smash one right away and pocket some for later.”
Go-to item 2: Beef and chicken empanadas.
Tasting notes: Lorena explains that the dough is similar to that of the pasqualina and that for both fillings she uses cumin, sautéed onion, roasted garlic, and jalapeño. “To me, empanadas are sandwiches,” says Gonzalez.
Go-to item 3: Mexican Coca-Cola.
Tasting notes: “This one is legit and way better than the stuff we get at major supermarkets here, because it’s made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup.”
161 Baldwin St. #1, dippeddonuts.ca
General manager Jenny La creates all of the staple and seasonal flavours at this walk-up doughnut window. “We usually have eight regulars and three vegan options,” she explains. “I think I’ve developed a sweet tooth in the last few years,” says Gonzalez. “You know those hazelnut wafer cookies? Man, I can smash back at least two trays in one sitting.” So when he saw the doughnuts in the window at Dipped, he had to check them out.
Go-to items 1 to 3: Chocolate Mud, Cookies and Cream, Pumpkin Spice.
Tasting notes: “Shit, that’s delicious,” says Gonzalez. La explains that the doughnuts are light and airy because they’re yeast-raised and made fresh daily. The Chocolate Mud is dipped in a 70 per-cent dark chocolate ganache and topped with cookie crumble. The Cookies and Cream creation is slathered with cream cheese icing, covered with cookie crumbs, drizzled with ganache and topped with an Oreo cookie. And the Pumpkin Spice is tossed in a mix of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and granulated sugar.
Tap Phong Trading Company
360 Spadina Ave., 416-977-6364, tapphong.com
Gonzalez wants to purchase an induction burner he put on hold, so he swings by the Chinatown institution to say hi to Lily Tran, whose family has owned the store since 1989. “We have tens of thousands of items for the home, restaurants, food trucks, or catering businesses. We have many repeat customers, because most were introduced to us by someone in the hospitality industry, or they came here during their time as a culinary student.”